Reflections on 5 Common Concerns About Self-Directed Learning

Amid my conversations with people about self-directed learning, I hear five common concerns or questions. I am grateful that people are willing to express these concerns because it provides an opportunity for discussion and to clarify common misconceptions about the SDL movement. With that in mind, following are those five concerns/questions along with reflections and response to each of them.

1) Isn’t self-directed learning selfish?

Given that the word “self” is in the phrase, I can so why people have this concern or question. Let me start by sharing a few definitions. One definition of self-directed learning:

“In selfdirected learning (SDL), the individual takes the initiative and the responsibility for what occurs. Individuals select, manage, and assess their own learning activities, which can be pursued at any time, in any place, through any means, at any age. In schools, teachers can work toward SDL a stage at a time.” – SelfDirectedLearning.com

Here is another definition from Malcolm Knowles 1975 text called Self-Directed Learning:

“…a process in which individuals take the initiative, with or with out the help of other, to diagnose their learning needs, formulate learning goals, identify resources for learning, select and implement learning strategies, and evaluate learning outcomes” (p. 18).

Here is yet one more from Gibbons’s 2002 Self-Directed Learning Handbook:

“SDL is any increase in knowledge, skill, accomplishment, or personal development that an individual selects and brings about by his or her own efforts using any method in any circumstances at any time” (p. 2).

As you can see from these three definitions, what most of us mean by self-directed learning is that people own their learning, take responsibility for it, and be deeply invested in it. It is about learning how to learn; how to set goals; devise a plan of action to achieve the goal; establish feedback loops and check progress; and how to find the people, resources, and experiences needed to meet a learning goal. It is not about being selfish, but it is about helping people progress toward independence and personal responsibility.

Here is a comparison that might help. Think of learning like eating a meal. When people are first born, they depend upon someone else to feed them. As they grow and develop, they can take increasing responsibility for feeding themselves. First they learn to use the utensils themselves. They might progress toward selecting some food. Eventually the hope is that they can plan meals, prepare them, and eat them. In doing so, they are also better equipped to help others along the way. As I look at it, that is the value of self-directed learning.

2) Doesn’t self-directed learning ignore the important role of peer interaction? 

When you talk to proponents of even the most radical approaches to self-directed learning, you see lots of peer interaction. As people take more ownership for their learning, it doesn’t mean that they are learning alone. Instead, this ownership often drives them to even greater interaction with a myriad of people. They seek help from peers and offer help to others. They search out mentors, role models and resources. They try to identify teachers who can help them at different parts of their journey. In essence, they learn to develop, rely upon, and take fully advantage of a robust student personal learning network that often extends beyond a single class of students.

3) If we let students direct all their own learning, what about all the gaps that they will miss? They don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t always know what is good for them.

This is an important question, and it is not nearly as easily answered as the first questions because there is indeed a philosophical difference that surfaces at this point. It is true that many proponents of self-directed learning (including myself) tend to be okay with an educational experience that has “gaps.” In other words, it is not an approach to or perspective on education that is focused upon universal standards or a set body of knowledge that must be mastered by all. As such, some in the SDL camp argue that it is okay to have gaps. People will learn something when they discover a need for it, and that will be on a different timeline for each person. The focus is more on helping people learn how to learn and perhaps nurturing a love of learning more broadly.

However, there are many perspectives on self-directed learning. There are plenty who seek to work within the existing system of education that tends to care about standards for math, language arts, science, and other key areas. Or, if it is not focused on standards, it might be a system focused on core knowledge considered important to be culturally literate, or perhaps a cannon of literature that is deemed necessary for a truly liberal education. Alongside meeting these typical expectations, there is also an intentional effort to provide the time, space and flexibility for students to engage in more self-directed learning. As such, you can see self-directed learning contexts along a spectrum ranging from entirely student-driven all the way to the other side of the spectrum that has a largely prescribed curriculum but leaves space for students to develop skill and confidence as self-directed learners.

4) This sounds nice for the well-equipped and motivated students, but how could this work for all young (or older) people. What about all the unmotivated and disadvantaged people?

I’ll start by pointing back to my response to the last question, noting that there is a spectrum of the extent to which learning environments are self-directed. Alongside that, I acknowledge that some people will more easily transition to a self-directed context than others. I’ve talked to leaders of some schools that say it may take a year or more in a deeply self-directed context before certain students start to own their learning. In more traditional school contexts with a self-directed learning element, the same is true. Some will transition more easily and readily. However, I do caution people to not assume that certain students or certain types of students are incapable of becoming self-directed learners in life. In fact, if we are truly committed to bridging achievement gaps and inequities in work and education, I contend nurturing competence and confidence as a self-directed learner is the very thing that we need.

The best advice I have for people with this concern is to do some solid, investigative work to test their underlying assumptions. Visit some schools and learning communities with a self-directed learning focus. Observe, talk to students, teachers/coaches/mentors, parents and other stakeholders. As one who has done this, I’ve seen a variety of students thriving in these contexts. In fact, one message that I’ve heard from students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds is how much it mattered for people to believe that they were indeed capable of such work and responsibility.

This doesn’t mean it is always an easy transition, and I’ve encountered plenty who didn’t have the patience and persistence to see the student shift to self-direction. It can be a painful and a fear-inducing journey for some, especially parents. Yet, proponents of self-directed learning will often tell you that it does or can indeed happen in time. Others acknowledge that, without the necessary support systems in place at home and/or the readiness of the learner to take ownership, it may be better to pursue a more traditional schooling option.

In the end, however, self-directed learning is not about a certain format of school. It is about a mindset, a disposition, and a type of agency that grows within a learner. For that reason, you can find highly competent and confident self-directed learners who attended traditional K-12 schools or colleges. They may have developed this above and beyond what they do in the regular school. In fact, I contend that this is why many people end up pursuing jobs (even callings) that were sparked by hobbies, modeling and experiences from family and others, and many other outside-of-school experiences. Interview a dozen computer programmers who love their jobs and see how many developed that love through formal classes alone, versus those who hacked and geeked out at home and elsewhere. Do the same for engineers, authors, mechanics, entrepreneurs, biologists, entertainers, and people in different helping professions. Quite often, the spark for their interest came beyond the classes and a standard school curriculum. It very often came in places where they had choice and/or took interest and ownership in something.

5) What is the role of the teacher in a self-directed context? Or, isn’t self-directed learning anti-teacher?

SLD isn’t anti-teacher. It is just heavily pro-learner in the sense that it is all about helping people become the leaders of their own learning journey now and throughout life. This doesn’t mean that they don’t know the value of learning from others, even sometimes submitting to the will of another in order to learn. However, SDL does tend to focus on helping people take responsibility for their own learning.

Self-directed learners use and benefit from teachers, mentors, models, and coaches. Teachers can be valuable resources for reaching one’s learning goals. The difference is that traditional perspectives on education start with the idea that the teacher is in charge, and SDL is about empowering the learner to be in charge. It is about setting people free more than keeping them under control. In most formal learning contexts focused on SDL, there is still a leader, teacher, coach, or mentor who helps people on their way. They might set up certain boundaries. They might set rules or requirements within which one is able to self-direct. They might coach and encourage. They might provide guidance through socratic questioning. These leaders might also help people develop the confidence and skills to be more self-directed. However, the goal is to help people progress toward greater levels of personal ownership, responsibility and independence.

Conclusion

Many of the questions above and responses are focused on the idea of a self-directed school or formal learning environment, and that is indeed a valuable part of the conversation. As more research points out the importance of developing non-cognitive skills to thrive in work and life, many practices among self-directed learning advocates will get new interest and attention. At the same time, I contend that growing as a self-directed learning is bigger than the type of school one does or does not attend. It is a fundamental literacy of life and learning in a connected world. It ultimately doesn’t matter where or how a person develops as a self-directed learner, but it is necessary to thrive in many modern contexts.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.

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